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Must I Explain? — Ridding yourself of the need to ‘explain’ English grammar

Contrary to the wide-eyed, exotic version of Japan as a country in which silence and its nuances are believed to serve an active communicative function, the Land of the Rising Sun often displays a real penchant for overstatement. As in waaaaay too much. Take the narrative of the average city bus driver: “I will now advance. Please be careful. Next, I will turn right. It’s a sharp curve so watch your step. There’s a red signal now so I will stop. Be careful. The next stop is Station West Exit. If you wish to alight there please press the buzzer in advance. Thank you. Does anyone want to get off at Station West Exit? Certainly. I will now stop at Station West Exit. I will now open the doors. Watch your step as you alight. Thank you very much.


And this does NOT include the pre-recorded tape echoing most of the same fixed expressions in the background. In Japan, such excessive verbiage is considered to be both polite and helpful. But is it really?



talking bus



The propensity to over-explain, often to the point where people either start to ignore it or become even more confused, is a daily feature of much of Japanese life – so then it is apparent in Japanese English language classrooms, particularly among Japanese teachers in junior and senior high schools (although non-Japanese teachers can also easily fall into the ‘explain the language’ trap).


Here are two common refrains I hear from in-service teachers who I teach in a summer graduate course:

  1. In my lesson, I start by explaining the target English/the English in the passage…
  2. How can I explain the details of the grammar to my students in English? They won’t understand!

The latter point in particular is a hot potato right now as the Ministry of Education And a Bunch of Other Stuff has mandated that Japanese teachers should strive to use only English in the second language classroom. But to me, this question is misdirected. The real question should not be, “How can I explain grammatical mechanisms in English?” but rather, “Why do we need to explain the mechanisms at all?” or, “If I have to explain something, when, and to what extent, is best for acquisition?”


“We high school teachers have to explain arcane grammatical detail…”


One answer I regularly receive when making this argument is that, “We high-school teachers have to explain arcane grammatical detail because these questions appear on university entrance exams!” There’s only one problem with it: It’s bunk. It’s an urban myth. It’s a convenient excuse (“The university entrance exams made us do it!”).


Ok then, so there are THREE problems with it. But even the most cursory glance at the national center examination, as well as almost all individual second-stage university entrance exams, will reveal that there are no questions which require test-takers to explain oddball grammatical structures, or even to ‘explain grammar’ at all.


Now, it’s true that as part of some of the examination texts, occasional complex constructions do appear. For example, I have seen the subjunctive, ‘So be it’ make a showing on the exam, but there was no related question demanding that test-takers explain the mechanism of the construction (it would best be learned as a set phrase anyway). Third conditional and unrestricted relative forms appear with some regularity but their uptake or ‘semantic value’ is connected to the surrounding text and is generally deducible therefrom. Having a bookish knowledge of the third conditional could actually interfere with completing most of these tasks.


grammar book


In other words, the test-taker is merely required to recognize (a receptive aspect of comprehension) a construction and get the gist of its value or purpose in relation to the wider text. This in no way requires any explicit, detailed explanation as to how/why the structure is formed, nor any need for the minutiae of that explanation to be memorized, any moreso than successfully getting off a bus at your correct stop requires so much bus driver verbiage.


I think the real reason that teachers assume that they have to explain stuff is because 1) they are locked into a narrow mold as to what they think a teacher’s primary function is (providing detailed data that their learners ‘don’t know’), and 2) they are locked into the notion that PPP (presentation-practice-production) is the one and only method of approaching language teaching, hence the reliance on explaining everything at the outset (again, a very Japanese peccadillo – Japanese public speakers often introduce their introductions).


It’s not my intention here to write a critique of PPP except to state that a wide number of viable alternatives do exist, and further, that PPP is widely viewed as being so outdated that teacher-trainer extraordinaire Jeremy Harmer recently asked if PPP is dead (read it at for a solid overview of the arguments). If you read the article, you will see that Harmer does not poo-poo the PPP approach, insisting that it does have a place in our pedagogical suitcases. But being illogically wedded to this single approach surely raises red flags.


“Explaining something can often interfere with actually engaging it”


The fundamental point is that people can often learn things better without prior, explicit explanations. In fact, it is highly arguable that explaining can often make concepts appear unnecessarily complex and actually produce greater confusion than clarity — in short, that explaining something can often interfere with actually engaging it (think sex!). My wife is a poignant example of turning a simple request into a challenge that would mystify Hercule Poirot. Her asking for toilet paper, for example, typically gets rendered something like: “Can you bring up some toilet paper? I need the pink ones. In a roll. But just one of the rolls. Under the stairs. The second shelf, maybe. Not the top shelf. Maybe not pink I think but definitely not white. Or the bottom. Smooth style.”


Now I know very well where we keep the toilet paper, but here we have a classic example of the Gricean Maxims of quantity and manner being violated. By explaining so much, I start to assume that she doesn’t want our standard toilet paper but some other special search-me-out variety being kept in a hidden, hitherto unknown-to-me, location. In the end, all she wanted was some – any — TP but such scenarios usually end up with her wondering why I could be such a doofus maximus as to not actually know where, or even what, the toilet paper is. The bottom line though is that excessive explanation of the innards of language construction to new learners has the same effect as, say, explaining the physical minutiae of muscle movements does to a rehab patient.


I should interject here that I am definitely not in favour of the TEE (Teaching English in English) policy, at least in single-country EFL scenarios. TEE requires one to maintain the ridiculous pretense of pretending that we are in an English- country and that no one present actually speaks Japanese as a common first language. It also harkens back to the rather smelly audio-lingual method — which I think archaeologists have dated as preceding the birth of Christ– wherein it is assumed that if input is offered in the target language, somehow it will magically come to be understood, even fully absorbed, (and, no, this is nothing like the ‘Input Hypothesis in practice’).


This means that classroom meta-language (instructions, class information, warnings and other extemporaneous speech) gets treated the same as target language, often resulting in cognitive overload for the listeners. The judicious use of L1 to succinctly outline, edit, embellish, organize, or exemplify is wasted. The wonderful advantage of having the Swiss Army-like Knife utility of L1 at hand as a classroom tool is chucked aside in favour of the sharpened twig of L2.

















Choose your teaching weapon


Therefore, what teachers need L1 for is not to ‘explain the hard bits’ but to guide and correct learning during or post-activity. For example, a brief ‘this (highlighted) bit works much like X does in Japanese’ — then highlight it again as a reminder when and if it reappears — until you think it can be reasonably added to the learner’s productive toolset. No lengthy ‘users manual’-like exposition of the form is required. This also means that teachers have to be very careful in advance so as to choose or generate examples or texts that clearly and naturally exemplify a structural point and that these be reinforced (or introduced) in activities in which the meaning and purpose of usage can easily be grasped by learners. In other words, the onus is on teachers to design materials and contents in which such points lend themselves to being grasped without explicit explanation.


Once, a very musically articulate writer commented appreciatively on a Brian Eno piece, mentioning how Eno created a profound effect by subtly shifting between the Dorian and Phrygian Modes. When informed of this however, the composer said that he had no idea of the ‘mode’ he was writing in or even much of an understanding as to how modes work in music but this did nothing to lessen his ability to compose an effective and memorable piece of music.  Now, it’s true that classically-trained virtuosos would have a conscious awareness of modes, but this is not something a piano teacher would foist upon a novice prior to a first recital. Rather, it is something better understood in retrospect, after a certain level of proficiency has already been attained, after a framework established in which this detailed knowledge falls more naturally into place, not before.


Now, must I explain how an understanding of grammar follows the same path?

Mike Guest

Mike Guest

Michael (Mike) Guest is Associate Professor of English in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Miyazaki (Japan). A veteran of 25 years in Japan, he has published over 50 academic papers, 5 books (including two in Japanese), has been a regular columnist in the Japan News/Yomiuri newspaper for 13 years, and has performed presentations and led workshops and seminars in over 20 countries. Besides ranting and raving, his academic interests include medical English, discourse analysis, assessment, teacher training, and presentation skills.
Mike Guest

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